Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Magic Man

(From time to time, this site will focus on individuals who, while not strictly speaking "daredevils", still made a mark through an interaction with Niagara. We begin with a performer who almost qualifies as a "daredevil", although on a different stage)

Harry Houdini was without question the greatest performing magician of the early-20th century, and arguably the greatest of all time. An inventive performer, who invented or improved on many illusions, he was the greatest attraction in vaudeville, in virtually every nation in the world. Magic experts believe that virtually all of Houdini's illusions can be recreated [indeed, many of them have], but virtually no one could reproduce Houdini's near-hypnotic presentation.

But Houdini was more than a magician. He was an innovative self-promoter, regularly putting on spectacular stunts in the cities he performed in. He was one of the first entertainers to see the value of radio appearances as a publicity device. He lent his name to a series of magic trick articles, published regularly in major newspapers. He parlayed an interest in aviation into a publicity coup when he became the first person to fly an airplane over Australia [see right]. And he made a few movies.

Harry's film career began in 1901, with an obscure film from French movie-maker Pathe [this movie was so obscure that Milbourn Christopher, one of Houdini's major biographers, says nothing about it in his book]. It was little more than a film record of some of Harry's more spectacular stage feats, tied together with a loose storyline. After a 17-year hiatus, Houdini returned to the screen, starring in the serial The Master Mystery. Financial problems led to the closing of the film production company, but the serial did well at the box office. This led Harry to sign with Paramount Pictures, where he made two full-length films, The Grim Game, and Terror Island. They were mostly opportunities for Houdini to perform spectacular escapes [possibly making Harry the first action star]. After his contract expired, Houdini started his own film company. Its first project was The Man From Beyond [1921]. In it, Harry played a typical 19th-century man, accidentally frozen in a block of ice, then discovered a century later. He was freed from the ice, thawed out, then confronted with 20th-century life. It was a big-budget project, with footage shot at, among other places, Lake Placid, NY [the early, "frozen" sequences], and Niagara Falls.

In the big scene, Harry desperately jumps into the water just above the Falls, in an attempt to save his girlfriend, who had been captured by the villains. Please excuse the poor quality of the following clip from that scene:

At the time of its release, critics claimed that Houdini had used a safety rope to make his exertions easier. Very likely he did. But the enthralled audiences didn't seem to care, and, in the interest of curiosity, I'd ask anyone who would be willing to recreate the feat [with or without safety rope] to raise a hand [my hand, it should be noted, is not raised].

Like his other movies, The Man From Beyond did well at the box office, and was shown around the world. But costs were very high. Houdini tried again the following year with Haldane of the Secret Service; it was filled with spectacular escapes and stunts [all done by Harry himself], but it cost much more than it brought in. Houdini brought his movie career to a close.

Typically, Harry looked as his movie work as great promotion for his live shows [although there is some evidence that he'd hoped to end his almost-continuous touring in exchange for the easier life of a film star]. Houdini continued to perform for another five years, before dying as the result of a freak injury [a long story, easily found by those who are interested].

Technically, he wouldn't qualify as a "daredevil". Yet Houdini is still remembered for one of the most spectacular stunts performed at Niagara.

Until we meet again, live and be well.

-Mike Riley

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